Hawaiian Sharks

"The healthiest marine ecosystems are rich in top predators such as sharks."

Sam 'Ohu Gon III
The Conservancy’s Hawai'i senior scientist and cultural adivsor

By Sam 'Ohu Gon III

One day a man named Kahikina went out fishing in his small canoe off the coast of Ka‘ū, and was attacked by two large niuhi (tiger sharks). When he cried out for help, he saw a small green shark coming toward him with great speed, which quickly attacked the man-eaters, slashing them with its tail until they fled. It then slipped under the canoe and carried it safely to shore.

So grateful was Kahikina that he returned the next day with a huge ‘awa root as an offering to the green shark, and when the shark approached, he cleaned from the shark's back the barnacles and other encrustations which had accumulated there. From then on, the shark and the man were great friends.

This green shark was Ke-ali‘i-kaua-o-Ka‘ū (the war chief of Ka’ū) and was born supernaturally by a woman of Waikapuna, below Na‘alehu. Keali‘ikauaoka‘ū is but one of many manō (sharks) of fame across the islands that were treated as family members, as ‘aumākua (ancestral deity), guardians of the many fishing families of Hawai‘i.

As ocean people, Hawaiians were familiar with the important role that sharks play as top predators in the marine ecosystem. They treated sharks as individuals of great power within their realm. However, as with many large animals living in the human environment worldwide, long intimacy meant that Hawaiians knew exactly how to behave with sharks in their waters.

Rulers of the Ocean Realm

The crew of Captain Cook's ship, the Resolution, at anchor in Kealakekua Bay in 1778, and surrounded by throngs of Hawaiians in canoes and swimming all around the ship, remarked with awe on what they saw: huge sharks swimming in the bay’s clear waters below thousands of swimming Hawaiians, but causing no consternation among them. Occasionally a shark would rise with its great mouth agape to bite at the legs of a swimmer, who, taking notice, would simply reach down and bat at the snout of the shark, as if it were a misbehaving pet, and the beast would retreat, chastised.

Just as not all sharks were ‘aumakua, and not all were so easily fended off, there are many traditional Hawaiian stories of people killed by sharks in ancient times, and they were respected as the rulers of the ocean realm. There are some 40 species of sharks in Hawaiian waters, ranging in size from the deep-water pygmy shark (about 8 inches) to the whale shark (up to 50 feet or more). About eight of these are commonly seen in nearshore waters, including the lālākea (whitecap reef shark), manō kihikihi (scalloped hammerhead shark), manō pā‘ele (blacktip reef shark), and occasionally, the large niuhi (tiger shark).

These inshore species feed mainly on fishes as top-level carnivores in the marine ecosystem. Their roles in reef ecosystems are complex; keeping fish population sizes in check and removing sick and injured fish, leaving the healthiest to survive and reproduce. Indeed, the healthiest marine ecosystems are rich in top predators such as sharks. This is seen both in our Palmyra Preserve and in the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.